It has been really thrilling to hear so much positive feedback about my essay about authoritarianism in engineering. In that essay, which you can read over at The Baffler, I argue that engineering education and authoritarian tendencies trend very closely and that we see this trend play out in their interpretations of dystopian science fiction. Instead of heeding very clear warnings about the avarice of good intentions gone awry, companies like Axon (né TASER) use movies and books like Minority Report as product roadmaps. I conclude by saying:
In times like these it is important to remember that border walls, nuclear missiles, and surveillance systems do not work, and would not even exist, without the cooperation of engineers. We must begin teaching young engineers that their field is defined by care and humble assistance, not blind obedience to authority.
I’ve got some pushback, both gentle and otherwise about two specific points in my essay which I’d like to discuss here. I’m going to paraphrase and synthesize several people’s arguments but if anyone wants to jump into the comments with something specific they’re more than welcome to do so.
Pushback 1: “Engineering” is too broad a category to do that much analytical work to. Civil engineers do very different work and have very different employers than those in aerospace or mechanical engineering.
It is certainly fair to say that civil engineers, who build bridges, tunnels, and lots of other important infrastructure are not under the same pressures to work in and otherwise support the military industrial complex the way aerospace engineers are. There are, indeed, different professional cultures that exist across these subfields. That being said, lots of universities have schools of engineering that contain aerospace, civil, and many other kinds of engineering. Those engineers take the same introductory courses and the same ethics or professional development courses. Engineering curriculums, when it comes to the social impacts of engineering and the very fundamentals of engineering, often have quite a bit of overlap.
ABET, the accreditation body for most American higher education engineering programs has a fairly centralized system where EVERY engineering program or department must abide by several fairly specific criteria. The closest that criteria gets to political implications of engineers’ work, by the way, is requiring that students be evaluated for their: “understanding of and a commitment to address professional and ethical responsibilities, including a respect for diversity.” Exactly what those ethical responsibilities are (not to mention what constitutes diversity), is left up to individual programs.
If we look at specific program criteria, like aerospace for example, there are absolutely no references to ethics whatsoever. That bears repeating: the association that reviews whether you have a functioning program for teaching humans how to build drones, missiles, fighter jets, and all sorts of machines of war has no additional ethics guidelines. If ABET can make one, brief requirement for ethics across all engineering disciplines and doesn’t have to distinguish between those different engineering disciplines when it comes to ethics guidelines, then criticism of that system can operate at that resolution as well. To say that my essay relies on too-broad of a category would also call into question nearly every university’s engineering curriculum.
Finally, there’s already a lot of acclaimed work in engineering pedagogy, STS, and other fields that make definitive, empirical claims across the engineering professions. Professor of engineering pedagogy Alice Pawley has done extensive surveys of engineers and found that most work in corporate or military organizations that are fairly large and are organized in hierarchical managerial structures. Louis L. Bucciarelli’s Designing Engineers is regular reading for anyone doing work in this area and he too makes reference to “engineers” very broadly. To discount my work would mean throwing out a fairly large portion of well-regarded research on the topic, much of which I cite in the essay.
Pushback 2: Contrary to what you argue in your piece, engineers do have ethics oversight and there are licensure bodies that require continuous training and have oversight boards.
While that first pushback has the opportunity for generative tensions and interesting discussion, I feel like this argument is a bad faith engagement with the topic. In my essay I write,
Unlike medical professionals who have a Hippocratic oath and a licensure process, or lawyers who have bar associations watching over them, engineers have little ethics oversight outside of the institutions that write their paychecks. That is why engineers excel at outsourcing blame: to clients, to managers, or to their fuzzy ideas about the problems of human nature. They are taught early on that the most moral thing they can do is build what they are told to build to the best of their ability, so that the will of the user is accurately and faithfully carried out. It is only in malfunction that engineers may be said to have exerted their own will.
Canadian engineers, many have pointed out, receive an iron ring in a ceremony designed by Rudyard Kipling called The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer. While that ceremony sounds very elaborate and might make for great in-group solidarity (which can be helpful in maintaining and enforcing ethical norms) it is not at all what I’m talking about. I didn’t say engineers have no sense of ethics, I argue that they actually have something worse: a definition of ethics wherein the individual engineer really only exercises their agency when something goes wrong. If the engineer does exactly as they are told and, for example, builds a perfectly working four-legged weapons platform for Boston Dynamics, they will have achieved a widely held definition of ethical engineering practice. That’s not good enough.
Others have argued that engineers do have oversight organizations that confer licenses and can take them away. Indeed, in the United States the National Society of Professional Engineering does confer a Professional Engineer (PE) license that is overseen by state-level licensure boards. Again, I said “little ethics oversight” not “no ethics oversight” but that is really beside the point because the NSPE does not revoke your PE license for building, say, an oil pipeline that leaks at a rate that is considered normal for that chosen design. The PE license is an example of my critique, not an argument against it because it only focuses on doing a job well, not whether the job itself comports with any sort of social justice standard or larger ethics framework.
Put another way, THE NSPE does nothing to work against what sociologist of engineering Diane Vaughn calls “normalization of deviance.” Bad, even deadly decisions, can be baked into systems-level decision-making such that individual actors might be dutifully following directions and making sure everything is staying within parameters, but there are few mechanisms for questioning the parameters in the first place. Vaughn coined normalization of deviance in studying the Challenger disaster but it works just as well to describe the BP Deepwater Horizon spill. Some might say “oh well that’s management” to which I would say the following: engineers love to boast that they have world-changing powers until something goes wrong. Then a paper-pusher becomes an insurmountable obstacle. I just don’t buy it.
A better argument against my critique would go after bar associations and medical licensure. Bar associations do not suspend lawyers for defending terrible companies and Dick Cheney’s doctors haven’t be censured for keeping a war criminal alive. Still though, lawyers also have the National Lawyers’ Guild and at least the Hippocratic Oath is partisan towards upholding and preserving life. There is no engineering organization that has significant power and would censure the NSPE-licensed engineer that will make sure Trump’s border wall is structurally sound.